Two Years Ago, President Obama Directed Federal Agencies to Prevent Chemical Disasters. Are We Any Safer Now?

In April 2013, an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas killed 15 people, injured more than 200, and levelled nearby homes and schools. President Obama visited West in the aftermath and promised to improve our nation’s chemical safety laws. On Aug. 1, 2013, he issued an executive order directing federal agencies to revise their chemical safety policies to ensure that a West-type tragedy never happens again. But two years later, are we any safer?

Since West, we’ve seen an additional 431 chemical releases or explosions that have killed 82 people and injured more than 1,600.

More than 134 million Americans live within the danger zone of a hazardous chemical plant, and one in three children attends schools that are at risk from a chemical leak or explosion. Despite ongoing problems at the nation's chemical facilities that put people at risk, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have not issued any significant changes since the president issued his executive order. Part of this inertia may be due to pushback from an industry reluctant to change.

The EPA intends to propose new chemical safety standards in September, but these new rules may not require a key strategy in preventing chemical disasters.

Many facilities can switch to using chemicals that are safer than the ones they use now or reduce the amount of chemicals stored on site to reduce or eliminate the risk to surrounding communities. Such changes to chemical production and use, known as inherently safer technologies (IST), are both feasible and affordable for most chemical plants. In 2013, the Clorox Company completed a phase-out of chlorine gas that has eliminated the risk to more than 13 million people living near its seven bleach facilities. Yet most companies won’t adopt IST unless required to do so.

We need rules that require companies to use safer chemicals whenever available. The new rules that the President called for two years ago  have to be in place by mid-2016 (60 legislative days before President Obama leaves office) to avoid the possibility they could be overturned by Congress or the next administration.

President Obama advocated for safer chemicals and facilities during his time in the Senate. As president, he made a promise to victims of the West, Texas disaster and directed federal agencies to improve their regulations. He can and should make good on his commitments and secure his legacy on this issue by ensuring that IST requirements are enacted before he leaves office.

Photo by James E. Foehl , used under a Creative Commons license.

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